The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

Picador Twentieth Anniversary Modern Classics


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Originally founded in 1995 as a publishing house for sophisticated hardcovers and reprint paperbacks, Picador USA is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this month with a set of four small limited edition modern classics with covers designed by Kelly Blair. Printed on pearlized cream stock, with rounded corners and colourful full-bleed imagery, the books look like exquisite pocket-sized treats.

According to creative director (and long-time friend of the blog) Henry Sene Yee, the books were the brainchild of Stefan von Holtzbrinck, head of Macmillan Publishing. “With Picador’s 20th Anniversary approaching, Stefan wanted us to celebrate it with some special printings. There were these tiny volumes in Europe that caught his eye, and he wanted us to do something like that.”

While still deciding which titles to include, and on the exact format and size, Henry worked out some early ideas in a notebook-sized format, using lines and shapes to represent the theme or narrative of each book. Facing a tight deadline however, Henry didn’t have time to finish the project by himself. He had a difficult decision to make. “Giving away a dream project is the hardest thing to do, but you have to be selfless and match up the best talent with the books.”

Henry, who has been at Picador from the very beginning, was determined to acknowledge the art department’s contribution to the publisher’s history. “One of my very first assistants was Kelly Blair. She is a brilliant designer and illustrator, and is now herself an Art Director at Pantheon / Knopf. If this project was going to celebrate the history of Picador and I couldn’t design it myself, I thought it should be someone who was there with me at the very beginning. Kelly made poetic sense, and made it feel better about letting go. A little.”

Kelly’s initial ideas included illustrations and some all-type solutions. “All were great,” says Henry, “but Kelly wanted to send me one more last-minute idea even though she wasn’t sure she liked it as much as her first ones. Of course that was the one we all loved and printed! Sometimes when a solution seems simple, we doubt its value.”

In addition to the new covers, Steven Seighman redesigned and re-typeset each book making them easy and inviting to read, even at the smaller size. “Even though they look great online,” says Henry, “it’s not until you have the actual wrapped and bound book in your hands that you appreciate its power and the beauty of print in the small format size.”



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The Twentieth Anniversary Picador Modern Classics — Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse, and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides — were published last week in the US. Thanks to art director Henry Sene Yee for talking to me about the project. 

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